The Ontario varsity soccer team at practice, gearing up for the season ahead. (The Enterprise/Pat Caldwell)

ONTARIO – No one could blame Ontario High School varsity soccer coach Jaime Gonzalez if he seems more than a little confident about the upcoming season.

For one, his squad will showcase 12 returning starters to the team that finished with a 2-4 mark in Greater Oregon League standings in 2017. 

 Gonzalez said his corps of experienced players will pay dividends but the fact his team is also relatively young will be an advantage.

“We are really excited about this year because we have really built a lot into these kids over the last three years and we are starting to see the progress,” said Gonzalez.

He pointed to two of his returners – senior Danny Rodriguez and sophomore midfielder Eric Lopez – as an example of the Tigers’ two-sided coin of youth and experience.

“We are really expecting a lot out of Danny Rodriguez, and Eric Lopez is kind of our engine. He played varsity last year and has a lot of experience under his belt,” said Gonzalez.

“It is a big key because they have been through the program and know what the coaches are expecting from them. We don’t have start from scratch,” said Gonzalez.

He is expecting his team to compete well in the fall.

“I really do think we have a really good shot at winning our league this year,” said Gonzalez.

To accomplish that goal, Gonzalez said the Tigers will have to contend with a strong soccer squad from La Grande and the always competitive McLoughlin High School of Milton-Freewater. The Pioneers clinched a 6-0 mark in league play and reached the state semi-finals. 

La Grande finished 4-2 in 2017 and reached the first round of the playoffs. The matchups against McLoughlin and La Grande will be key, said Gonzalez.

“La Grande and Mac-Hi games - those are so important. We play them two times a year so it really affects league standings. Our first big game is against Mac-Hi Sept. 15 and that will be a big test,” said Gonzalez.

By then, though, the Tigers will have games against Fruitland, Weiser and Payette under their belts. 

“We have a nice young core group that has been playing together for a few years so I am pretty optimistic with that,” said Gonzalez.

The Tiger girls squad will have six returning starters from a team that finished 2-3-1 in league and navigated into a state play-in game against Cascade in 2017. The Tigers lost that game 3-0.

That was a pretty good finish, said Tiger Coach Stacey Captein, especially after the Tigers began last season by losing three key players, including their starting goalkeeper, to injuries.

“We had a tough year last year,” said Captein.

She said so far, her team is devoid of injuries.

“We had a lot of talented girls come out this year and everyone is back and healthy,” said Captein.

She said La Grande would be the toughest opponent on the schedule this fall.

“We are looking forward to an awesome season,” said Captein.

Nyssa

In Nyssa, Bulldog boys soccer coach Steven Escobedo said the goal for 2018 is a simple one: “Do more than make it to the first round.”

Last autumn, the Bulldogs scored 49 goals on the way to a 3-3 league mark that was good enough for a trip to the state soccer playoffs. There, Taft downed Nyssa 7-0 in first-round action.

To return to the postseason, Escobedo said the seniors on the team would have to “step up” and “make it their season.” Escobedo said his coaching philosophy is simple.

“Start with the fundamentals and as the season progresses put it in their hands,” said Escobedo.

On the girls side, Bulldog Soccer Coach Carol Steinmetz said practices so far are “going well.”

Steinmetz, entering her second year at the helm of the Bulldog girls squad, said her team will be young but with a nucleus of veterans.

A total of 19 girls are on the roster now, including six freshmen and 10 new players. The girls team finished 2-2-2 in 2017. 

 Steinmetz, though, said several key veterans would play a big role during the next few months for her soccer team.

Steinmetz said will depend on players such as seniors Madisyn Hartley and Cynthia Gonzalez along with junior Cristal Trinidad. 

Steinmetz said she is optimistic about the season.

“I feel great and I’m super excited to get started,” said Steinmetz.

Reporter Pat Caldwell: [email protected] or 541-473-3377.